Six years ago I published a post about ways to maximize your experience on a long airline flight in the economy section. As people are returning to long-distance travel has returned to its pre-Covid volume, I thought it is interesting to look back at the post to see how my thoughts on the subject may have changed.

In 2016, I had five basic ideas for maximizing your experience in economy on a long airplane flight. They were:

  1. Use SeatGuru’s Website for Plane and Seat Selection
  2. Buy Noise-Cancelling Headphones or Earbuds 
  3. Use a Neck Pillow
  4. Get a Lie-Flat Economy Seat 
  5. Have Access to an Airline or Airport Club

Those ideas will improve your comfort and enjoyment.  Based on the experience of the last six years, I’d tweak them slightly and add a couple of other tactics. 

  1. Select an Airline, Aircraft and Seat That Provides the Best Experience

I think the most impactful choices for comfort on a long flight are selecting the best aircraft and seat for your circumstances. Not all planes are created equal, nor are all seats.  Often when searching for flights, websites offer multiple flights to choose from on any given day.  Choices involve different types of aircraft and different airlines as well as different prices.

It is tempting to simply opt for the cheapest fare or the shortest flight time. Spending a few dollars more or taking more time in transit can be worth it to get the plane and seat you want.

As a general rule, I prefer widebody, two-aisle airplanes.  These planes are often outfitted with the latest in-flight entertainment systems, seats and other amenities.  A larger airplane and an extra aisle means it is easier to move about and there is more room to stretch your legs when you leave your seat.

I don’t rely solely on the airline’s seat map when choosing a seat. SeatGuru is a popular site for finding seat map for major airlines. Other websites with helpful seat maps include Seatmaestro, Skytrax and numerous others.

All economy seats on the flight will have the same width. Exit row seats usually have the most legroom. Seat width and legroom are important but not the only considerations in selecting seats. The location of bathrooms, bulkheads and galleys can also influence your level of enjoyment of the flight.

Bulkhead seats have advantages and disadvantages. The best attribute of bulkhead seats is no one can recline into your space. The principal deficiencies are that you usually can’t extend your legs and there is no under seat storage.

I usually try to avoid sitting near lavatories. People tend to congregate around them. And I hate it when people often fail to close the bathroom door when they are done. The smell is bad and the light is very annoying on night flights in a dark cabin.

Galleys, on the other hand, usually don’t bother me although on a night flight lights and conversation in the galley can be annoying when trying to sleep.

At least here the curtain blocks some of the light from the lavs or galley.  The vast majority of passengers, unfortunately, don’t bother to close the curtain completely when they pass through.

Exit row seats generally have the most leg room. On widebody aircraft, exit row bulkhead seats often have tons of legroom.  One caveat is that exits on widebodies sometimes have a housing for the emergency exit slide that can take up a lot of space.

Emergency escape slide housing eliminates what would otherwise be oodles of legroom for this 777-300 bulkhead, exit-row window seat.  

Airlines usually block the best economy seats from selection by passengers without some level of elite status until the day of departure and/or charge an additional fee to select them.  Most airlines offer an economy seat that has three or four more inches of legroom. Sometimes these seats come with perks like free drinks and dedicated space in overhead bins. It can be worth paying the fee. In Asia, many of the low-cost airlines assign exit row seats on request at check in and charge no fee.

2.  Fly with Noise-Cancelling Headphones or Earbuds       

Noise-cancelling headphones can greatly enhance the enjoyment of a flight in economy class. Compared to the cheap earbuds airlines pass out for free, noise-cancelling devices provide much improved sound quality for watching movies and listening to music.  They also cancel out much of the noise of the engines, crying babies and noisy neighbors.  

After a few hours, headphones can get heavy on the ears; so lightweight ones maybe best.  A good pair of earbuds won’t squish your ears, but they don’t cancel out as much noise in my opinion.

I recently replaced my old noise-cancelling headphones with wireless ones.

3.  Use a Neck Pillow  

Neck pillows may look goofy but they provide good support for the head. A neck pillow makes it much easier to get a few hours of good sleep thereby making the flight seem to go faster and leaving you fresher on arrival. Most airlines stopped providing pillows on long-haul flights during Covid.

Economy class on a Virgin Atlantic 787-900 pre Covid. Few economy seats provide this level of support for the neck and head.

4. Find a ‘Lie-Flat’ Economy Seat 

There is no such thing as a true lie-flat economy seat, of course.  But having an empty seat or two beside you is almost the same thing.

A Bangkok Airways A320 ‘lie-flat’ exit row

Flights are getting fuller and fuller so it is not easy to get one empty seat beside you much less two.  Select the best seat available when you book.  Then keep checking the seating chart on the airline website as time gets closer to departure.  Seats usually fill up from the front to back of the plane.  The last few rows of economy are normally the last to fill up and the most likely place to find a seat next to an empty seat.  If it looks like a row won’t be full, switch to that seat when you check in or at the gate.  The agent might even keep the next seat open if you ask (beg).  There are no guarantees. You can also switch to a better seat once the door closes

5.  Visit an Airline or Airport Lounge

Access to a lounge before departure can make a big difference to the inflight experience.  Airlines ask passengers to arrive at the airport as much as three or more hours prior to departure. If you are going to spend that much time stuck in an airport, you might as well enjoy it.

Lounges offer free snacks and light meals, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, wifi, newspapers, showers, comfortable seating, and a respite from the hub bub of the terminal and gate area.  In addition, airline lounges have agents who will help with travel issues and questions.  Access to these agents can be invaluable during major travel disruptions. 

Air travel can be stressful in part because passengers are at the mercy of the airlines and the weather. I find that relaxing in comfort while enjoying a repast and an alcoholic beverage moderates a lot of the stress. A shower before a long flight clears my mind and reduces tension.

There are several ways to gain access to airport and airline lounges.  First, you can become a member.  US airlines offer annual and multi-year memberships to their lounges.  You can buy a membership directly from the airline. Membership in some airline lounges is a perk that comes with having one of the airline’s top credit cards. The annual fee these cards charge can be totally or partially offset by the value of the membership and other card benefits.

Second, some credit cards that are not sponsored by an airline provide access to the Priority Pass system of more than 1,200 lounges in airports worldwide. Citi, Chase and American Express have cards that feature Priority Pass membership. Priority Pass sells memberships. The cost of a membership depends on the number of uses that are covered.

Third, mid-level elite status with an airline in an alliance comes with access to lounges belonging to that airline and others in the same alliance when travelling on long-haul international flights even when traveling in economy — no credit card or lounge membership required.

Finally, some lounges sell access to anyone on a per-use basis. Check details at LoungeBuddy.

New Recommendations

Since I wrote the original post in 2016, several other ideas have come to mind for enhancing the experience in the economy cabin.

6. Bring Snacks 

Airlines have been known to have problems with catering in which food is unavailable or not what was intended to be available.  Having a snack of your choice can come in handy.  Before going through customs, remember to declare any food you packed or eat it. 

7.  Bring Your Own Entertainment

Even though in-flight entertainment systems are usually well stocked, downloading a movie you’d like to see or a fun game can come in handy. 

8.  Garden Your Reservations

Leisure travelers often book flights months in advance. That usually means you get a lower fare. The flip side is there is more opportunity for the airline to change your flight times, connections, aircraft and seat assignment. It is a good idea to check your reservations periodically. Who knows. You might find that the seat(s) you wanted have opened up.

Final Thoughts

Economy class gets you where you want to go for the lowest cost. The trade off is comfort. Being confined to a tiny seat with little legroom on a long flight can be an ordeal. These ideas have maximized my enjoyment of long flights when traveling in the economy cabin. Which idea might work best for you? Do you employ other tactics to maximize your comfort in coach on a long flight?